If you grew up in church, you know the story of Zacchaeus. He was a “wee little man” who climbed a tree to see Jesus. I guess there are worse ways to be remembered in history. But it seems a bit unfair to me that all we remember about ol’ Zack was that he was elevationally impaired.
The point of Zacchaeus’ story is that Jesus showers radical love on both the marginalized (those Zacchaeus had wronged) and the sinner (Zacchaeus himself). Zacchaeus saw a glimpse of this. But in the moment, honestly, he didn’t see the half of it. He couldn’t have. Why?
Because even though Zacchaeus climbed up a tree seeking Jesus, a few chapters later, Luke tells us that Jesus would climb a tree, too. And the tree Jesus climbed would prove just how far he would go to reconcile with wee little Zack.
The concept of a tree was important long before Zacchaeus. Every Jew in that day knew the Old Testament line, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Here, Jesus climbed up into a tree so he could take Zacchaeus’ place of cursing and extend to him intimacy and fellowship.
Jesus traded places with Zacchaeus. Jesus experienced the shame so that Zacchaeus could receive the acceptance. Jesus took the curse so Zacchaeus could reap the blessing. Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down from that tree of shame so he could climb up into it. And when Zacchaeus saw that, and tasted it—just a little bit of it—it changed him.
His awakening was twofold, and I believe most encounters with Jesus follow a similar response: first, Zacchaeus recognized the emptiness of money, and then he recognized the glory of Jesus.
1. The Emptiness of Money
Robin Williams’ career took off with the success of the sitcom Mork and Mindy, for which he won several awards. He then starred in several culture-defining movies. All of this led him to be regarded as one of the most successful comics of all time.
Despite his success, throughout his life he confessed to being deeply unhappy, with those around him saying that he was sullen and morose offstage. His son, Zak, said his moods would rise and fall with movie reviews or how much everyone was talking about someone else. He’s said to have once told his wife, “You’re only as good as your last performance.” Toward the end of his life, he was so distraught that he confided in a friend, saying that he didn’t know how to be funny anymore. And his self-inflicted death is a tragic reminder of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Humor is often the mistress of sorrow.”
Zacchaeus didn’t just climb that tree; something compelled him to do so. Like Williams, he had achieved all he could have ever wanted to achieve, yet he felt empty, unsettled. Proverbs 13:25 says, “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want” (ESV). Zacchaeus had a full pantry. He was rich. But his gut wasn’t full—he was still empty.
Maybe this resonates with you. Maybe you’ve given your life to pursue some dream and now that you have it—or even just a part of it—you still feel unsettled. Maybe it’s time you recognize that what you’ve given your life to pursue may not deliver what you thought it would. Zacchaeus got a glimpse of how empty money was, and he learned from it. But even more so, he got a glimpse of how glorious Jesus is.
2. The Glory of Jesus
Jesus was the Savior who loved Zacchaeus when nobody else would and sought him up in a tree when no one would even let him be a part of the crowd. Here was a person—Jesus—who had no need of Zacchaeus, yet he pursued him anyway.
No matter what your idol is, you’ll do anything you can to keep it in your possession. … But if it’s not surrendered to Jesus, it’s going to leave you feeling empty.
This experience of grace broke money’s hold over Zacchaeus, the whole reason (we assume) he had become a tax collector in the first place. To him, money represented “the good life,” and if he had to compromise his integrity, burn a few bridges, or deceive to get it, he was willing to pay that price. His sin was driven by his idolization of money.
The same is true of you. You might not be some overly vicious, lustful person, but you’re held captive by your idol’s spell. No matter what your idol is, you’ll do anything you can to keep it in your possession. Maybe it’s money. Or sex. Or a happy family. Or an impressive job. But if it’s not surrendered to Jesus, it’s going to leave you feeling empty. Why let the spell continue when you can break it?
Zacchaeus had lived all his life under the spell of money. Then he met Jesus—and everything changed.